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The Other 'Marburg School'
An Enemy of Seminar Marxism? Lothar Peter's Marx on Campus: A Short History of the Marburg School, Historical Materialism Book Series, 195 (Boston, Brill: 2019).
Beyond Wolfgang Abendroth’s A Short History of the European Working Class and his essay ‘The Problem of the Social Function and Social Preconditions of Fascism,’almost nothing written by the key scholars associated with the West German Marburg School has yet appeared in English. Even for English speakers familiar with twentieth century German Marxism, it is likely not even the most famous ‘Marburg School,’ a name it shares with the Neo-Kantian philosophical movement led by Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. In a funny historical irony, while this earlier Marburg school was known and criticized for its overly abstract theoreticism, the other Marburg school, as Lothar Peter shows, prided itself on almost exactly the opposite.
Originally appearing in 2014 to rather extensive reception in Germany, Peter’s Marx on Campus, now available in English, has gone largely unreceived. There was an interview with Lothar that initially appeared in French in Contremps and then translated by Loren Balhorn for Historical Materialism,as well as an essay in Jacobin on Abendroth specifically, however it has essentially been passed over by sociological journals or even English academic publications associated with Marxism. This is surely partly because of its introductory quality, consisting mainly of accounts of the major trends within the school chronologically arranged.
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Marx on Campus however is particularly notable as the first appearance of a book in English dedicated to the subject. Describing the school as a ‘victim of historical amnesia,’ the aim of the volume is, as Peter puts it, ‘to remedy this circumstance by describing for the reader of the Marburg School helped to keep the critique of capitalism and society alive during a period in (West) German history when such critique earned its proponents more outrage, scorn, and rejection then it did reputation or public recognition’ (xii). Much of the book is therefore descriptive and straightforward in a narrative sense, successfully showing the Marburg School to be a genuine ‘epistemic community’ and giving a useful account of both its development, summary descriptions of its major works, and the career arcs of the major names with which it is associated. It is also a wonderful history in miniature of the various obstacles Marxist study faced in West Germany more broadly.
The most notable representative is of course Wolfgang Abendroth, a constitutional lawyer and political scientist and the ‘intellectual protagonist of the renaissance of Marxism and the student movement in the Federal Republic in 1968’ (36). Fellow Marburg school member Franke Deppe referred to Abendroth as not only an ‘organic intellectual of the workers movement,’ but as an ‘intervening socialist intellectual.’ For Jurgen Habermas, Abendroth represented a ‘partisan professor in the country of followers,’ going so far as to dedicate his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere to him as a doctorate thesis in Marburg in 1962. At that point, the ‘too left wing’ appearing Habermas was — at least as Peter tells it — not permitted by Theodor W. Adorno to finish his thesis in Frankfurt.
Abendroth’s classic A Short History of the European Working Class for example was guided by two fundamental ideas: (1) the normative connection between socialism and democracy, and (2) the need for political unity between the social-democratic and communist wings of the worker’s movement (35). His general historiographical perspective was broadly that of ‘social history,’ akin to Arthur Rosenburg’s Democracy and Socialism as Peter points out, as well as the methodologies explored more systematically by Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jurgen Kocka, associated with the Bielefeld School.Abendroth also launched an introduction to political science that became a reference point for the discipline as a whole, although one which reframed ‘political science’ as ‘political sociology.’ As Peter puts it, ‘rather than ascribing to the state and it’s institutions an independent existence sui generis and restricting analysis to the immanent functioning thereof, political sociology was obliged to explore the relationship between the political as such and the structure of society’ (36).
Other notable examples of the Marburg School include Werner Hoffman and his conceptual and intellectual-historical reconstruction of Marxist theory best captured in his Industrisoziologie fur Arbeiter, as well as the thought of Heinz Maus, who had previously served as a research assistant of Max Horkheimer. ‘Similar to Abendroth,’ Peter writes, ‘[Hoffman] sets himself apart from the conservative cultural pessimism that resonated among critical intellectuals of the period by stressing the enormous potential of modern technology to facilitate humanity’s emancipation of social coercions’ (65). Despite retaining what they understood to be a classically Marxist account of the role of automation, Hoffman and Maus were certainly more optimistic about the liberatory potential of technology than the sort of critique of instrumental reason typically associated with the Frankfurt School. All three, ‘remained utterly convinced of the epistemological validity of the dialectical method and the central categories of Marx and Engels work’ (66). They were, in other words, much less revisionist as it relates to the traditional framework of Marxism inherited via debates between the German Social Democratic and Communist parties, while representing a separate trajectory from the ‘Orthodox’ Soviet Marxism of the early to mid-twentieth century.
Other members include Frank Deppe – whose focus remains largely sociological, covering problems related to, ‘trade unions […] the social and political orientation of the intelligentsia and intellectuals, as well as the field of higher education policy’ (91) – as well as George Fulberth and Jurgen Harrer’s work on the history of Social Democracy and German Communist Parties within Europe in Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie, a volume that built on Abendroth’s own Augstieg and Krise der deutzschen Sozialdemokratie.
Common to Deppe, Fulberth and Harrer was an attempt to historically explain and, in some sense, heal the repeated divisions between revolutionary and reformist politics dividing the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ left. Important as well are Reinhard Kuhnl’s studies of fascism. Rejecting the sorts of theories of totalitarianism that dominated postwar thinking on the subject (such as Ernst Nolte’s The Three Faces of Fascism), for Kuhnl, ‘fascism constituted an (albeit exorbitant) element in the historical continuity of bourgeois capitalist society rather than it’s negation, even if it suspended the principles of parliamentary-democratic legitimation of the state order in a terroristic faction’ (100).
The major points of contestation or theoretical interest have largely to do with Peter’s framing of the comparison between the Marburg School and Frankfurt School as being divided between, on the one hand, a practical, political and conjectural focus and, on the other, a focus on questions related to culture, individual and collective subjectivity, and philosophical inquiry. For Peter, the Frankfurt School conducted what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called ‘artistic critique,’ the study of the subjective coercions of capitalism, alienation and objectification.Abendroth and his intellectual lineage, by contrast, conducted ‘social critique’: the analysis of economic, social and political conditions for transforming capitalist society through a socialist workers’ movement allied with the left-leaning intelligentsia.
This seems overly schematic, particularly when considering the self-understanding of concepts like ‘artistic’ or ‘aesthetic’ to those who were apparently practitioners of the former; however, it is useful to make as a point of contrast. Their respective reactions to the eruption of the student movement in the late 1960s is representative. Unlike the thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, Abendroth first and foremost traveled with the movement of the broader left. As early as the first page of the preface, Peter is eager to point out that despite the common association of the Frankfurt School with ‘critical theory,’ the Marburg school was surely an example as well, but one which, ‘embodies a wholly different type of relationship between theory and practice’ (xi).
Indeed, for the Anglophone world, the affiliation of ‘critical theory’ and West Germany will immediately call to mind names like Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin or even Habermas, but certainly not Abendroth, Hoffmann, Maus, Deppe or Kuhnl. The Frankfurt School (both in real terms and as bogeyman) has certainly been influential in an English-speaking context, as well as, rightly or wrongly, setting the terms for what ‘critical theory’ (and also, strangely, ‘Marxism’ more broadly) is largely understood to entail, particularly in an American context. Within West Germany however, as Ingnar Solty puts it in the introduction, ‘one could argue that the Marburg School altogether had as many if not more students and followers […] than the Frankfurt School and exerted at least as much if not more and deeper influence on the West German Left and West Germany society in general’ (1). Although disparate in a contemporary context, Peter shows this influence to still be in existence today.
For Solty, members of the Marburg school, ‘stayed truer to their current core’s epistemological and praxis-political principles’ as compared with ‘the increasingly conservative post-war thought of Marx Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno,’ Jurgen Habermas’ linguistic turn to American pragmatism and the ‘neo-idealism of Axel Honneth’s philosophy of recognition and “socialism”’ (2). Peter for example compares Abendroth’s focus on the utilization of Marx’s theory to investigate contemporary social relations in terms of their political mutability with what he understood as ‘the growing tendency towards an abstractification in Marxist theory and the kind of “seminar Marxism” growing increasingly prevalent since 1968 that pursued a categorical fetishisation of Marx divorced from empirical reality’ (54).
Abendroth and the Marburg school more generally were indeed focused on the concrete at the level of theoretical focus and the specific political situation in West Germany. The orientation of Abendroth and the school he inspired was much more specific, present-oriented, conjunctural and modest. Abendroth reached the apex of his career as a highly influential public intellectual between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, focusing primarily on strengthening the left wing of the workers’ movement and other democratic forces in a specifically practical sense, as well as theoretically via the application of Marx’s epistemological categories to actually existing sociological and historical problems.
Critical reflection on his own epistemological or historical conditions of possibility however appears to have been outside his intellectual range. ‘Though all three had faced persecution under the Nazis, no long-term cooperation ever came to pass between Horkheimer, Adorno, and Abendroth. They all invoked Marxism, but their respective understandings of science were simply too opposed to one another’ (Peter 2020). Indeed, not just their respective understandings of science but also of critique. For Kant, ‘transcendental critique’ was, after all, an inquiry into theoretical conditions of possibility, and insofar as ‘critical theory’ retains this legacy, the Marburg School’s location within it is of some question.
As Peter puts it, Abendroth ‘neglected to produce a broader, systematic theoretical treatise because he consistently prioritized the practical-political relevance of his work over foundational research’ (35). ‘A more intensive engagement with the original works of Marx and Engels,’ Peter writes, ‘would only begin relatively late in life, following the conclusion of World War II’ (53). Even more generally, Peter points out that the Marburg school ‘have produced no fundamental theoretical or methodological innovations in the social sciences since the 1980s, and aside from isolated interventions […] exhibited remarkable indifference to an epistemological or methodological reflection of their own activity’. The Marburg school however did not so much reject the kind of retreat to philosophy – if it can be called that – but argued on a different plane of abstraction. ‘Their research,’ Peter writes, ‘is of an exclusively theoretical and empirically secondary-analytical nature’ (157).
Given this more concrete, conjunctural and ‘secondary-analytical’ focus, the lack of global reception or interest in the Marburg school outside Germany and the lack of affiliation with ‘critical theory’ more broadly is perhaps unsurprising. Concrete analyses are, after all, concrete, and applicable within a specific conjuncture, one which passes. One of the ironies of critical-theoretical reflection of a more abstract sort is precisely its lack of specificity, thus its eventual reception and remolding for different contexts in different places, often in ways at cross-purposes with the author’s original intentions. Yet our own intellectual moment – and what separates it from that of both the Frankfurt School and Abendroth – is defined precisely by a distinct lack of Marxist secondary-analytical work on contemporary social problems that the Marburg School does so well to represent, and which Peter shows to be very much present despite difficult ideological circumstances. Further translation into English of the works associated with the Marburg School certainly would serve as an inspiration in this regard. It also might put into relief the more reflective critical-theoretical forms of so-called ‘artistic critique’ that are the more popular mode du jour, for surely anything resembling a healthy left-intellectual culture requires both primary and secondary-analytical forms of analysis in abundance.
This is an edited version of a review already published in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books: https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/20801_marx-on-campus-a-short-history-of-the-marburg-school-by-peter-lothar-reviewed-by-bo-harvey/
Wolfgang Abendroth, “The Problem of the Social Function and Social Preconditions of Fascism,” International Journal of Politics, vol 2 issue 4, 1972-1973: 104-113.
Nicolas De Warren & Andrea Staiti, New Approaches to Neo-Kantianism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015),
“Marx on Campus: The Many Faces of the Marburg School.” An interview with Lothar Peter, conducted by Selim Nadi, trans. Loren Balhorn. https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/interviews/marx-campus-many-faces-marburg-school
Lothar Peter, “How To Be A Partisan Professor,” Jacobin Magazine https://jacobin.com/2020/01/wolfgang-abendroth-germany-professor-leftist-intellectual
Here is the passage from Peter: “Nor should we forget the fact – characteristic of West Germany’s dull and authoritarian intellectual atmosphere before 1968 – that due to Horkheimer’s low opinion of him, Theodor Adorno did not dare allow the ‘too left-wing’-appearing Habermas to complete his doctorate in Frankfurt, forcing him to relocate to Marburg where he finished The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere under Abendroth’s supervision in 1961” (36-37). That this happened the way Peter describes is of some question—and possibly some sort of post facto revenge on Adorno. It was certainly Horkheimer — not Adorno — who had the low opinion of Habermas. Here is Peter Osborne in his review of Stefan Müller-Doohm’s biography, worth quoting in full:
“it was Habermas’s review essay on Marx and Marxism, written for Gadamer’s new journal, Philosophische Rundschau, in 1957 that was the occasion for the increasingly conservative Horkheimer to express his ire against Habermas, and demand that Adorno make him leave the Institute. Habermas’s support for the movements against rearmament and nuclear armament had already irked Horkheimer, who saw them as naive collusion with the Eastern bloc. He now accused Habermas’s account of Marx of treating revolution as ‘a kind of affirmative idea’, incompatible with ‘what we mean by critique and critical theory’. (He was also worried about the Institute’s funding from German industry.) Gadamer, on the other hand, liked the piece because it ‘avoided all political judgement’. Adorno, to his credit, stood firm. He could see the connection between the way Habermas read Marx and Horkheimer’s own early essays and, Müller-Doohm suggests, sensed that ‘Horkheimer’s anger was fuelled by the fact that Habermas reminded him of his own past as a social revolutionary’. Adorno continued to defend Habermas when Horkheimer declined to publish the delayed empirical study on the political consciousness of students in the Institute’s series on the grounds that Habermas’s introduction merely replaced the word ‘revolution’ with ‘social democracy’ (not such a small change by the late 1950s, one might have thought). Adorno, on the other hand, called it a ‘showpiece’ and a ‘masterpiece’. But given that Horkheimer was the director, it is hardly surprising that Habermas did not feel especially welcome at the Institute. He resigned in 1959, without another job, but with a grant from the German Research Foundation for his Habilitation project. He would return five years later. In the meantime, he had met Marcuse at the centennial conference on Freud, who appeared to him as ‘the political spirit of the old Frankfurt School”
Indeed, Peter’s association of Habermas and student radicalism (as if he was simply on the side of the students and Abendroth, with Adorno set against them) is certainly overly simplistic.
“Habermas accused the protesters of provoking the state violence they opposed, thus effectively blaming the victims, while supporting their goals. His personalized denunciations of Frankfurt student leaders including Hans-Jürgen Krahl and his own assistant, Oskar Negt, as ‘pseudo-revolutionaries’ is presented in the biography in the dry Habermasian language of exemplary participation in a collective ‘clarification of the normative questions concerning the practical aspects of communal life’. This normative approach did not extend to being prepared to testify in court in support of students blockading the Springer press, nor to supporting the students when Adorno famously called the police to have them evicted from the Institute. In fact, they had gone to occupy the Institute building because Habermas had locked them out of the Sociology department, which was their organizational base.”
Peter Osborne, “Redemption Through Discourse,” https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii108/articles/peter-osborne-redemption-through-discourse. See as well, Stefan Müller-Doohm, Habermas: A Biography, (London: Polity, 2016) which, as Osborne puts it, “records the events scrupulously.” Thanks to Louis Hartnoll for pointing this out, as well as providing useful references.
Arthur Rosenburg, Democracy and Socialism, (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1939). See also Roger Fletcher, “Recent Developments in West German Historiography: The Bielefeld School and its Critics,” German Studies Review, vol 7 issue 3, 1984: 451-480.
Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, (London: Verso, 2018)